If you’ve spent a lot of time outdoors, you’ve probably come to recognize a few trees and flowers. Hiking in California’s hills, you might identify a coast live oak by its prickly leaves or maybe a stand of manzanita by its red bark, but for Jacob Weverka that’s just skimming the surface.
Growing up in Oakland, California, Jacob spent a good chunk of his rascally days exploring lush meadows and gaping at granite giants in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. When he was 8 years old, his parents took him out for his first true expedition. He remembers being out of breath most of the time, gulping down thin mountain air as he trundled up Yosemite’s famously steep slopes. He was acclimating for the rest of his life.
Jacob returned to the same Sierra valleys, meadows, and lakes on family getaways throughout his life. Later, he would tackle the 200-mile John Muir Trail, study trout populations in lakes, and eventually work for the U.S. National Park Service in 2016. Over the years, developing his eye for ecology, he’d go from hardy backpacker to faithful steward of one of America’s most cherished national parks. He’d also become a Van-phibian, learning to live out of vehicles and sleeping in cars like they were his natural habitat.
Embracing the Van Life
Jacob spent two fall seasons in Yosemite, finishing up each year before the freezing temperatures rolled in. After Yosemite, he’d work with a non-profit conservation group on cattle ranches around the coastal city of Pescadero, California. He called it the “grass-fed beef scene.”
At some sites in Pescadero, Jacob was put up in a ranch house. In others, he lived out of his 2006 Honda CR-V with his surfboard strapped along the inside of his car’s roof. He studied plants, surveyed soil, and surfed. When he needed to change clothes or to cook dinner, he dug into his storage bins in his beloved CR-V.
“I’m not the most organized person,” he said. “You know, I had stuff in piles. I was fishing for stoves and oatmeal packets all the time.” The lifestyle was a bit messy, but it was also familiar, a nod to his former adventures on the road.
The longest of those adventures came together after he had graduated from college. Jacob wrangled together six friends, got them to pitch in on a 190,000-mile 2000 Chevy Astro, and took off on a trip across the country, to the East Coast and back. The newly graduated posse would zoom through 32 states in 55 days, covering close to 13,000 miles before landing back home in the Bay Area.
“It was all about subsuming yourself into the group,” he said about the trip. “You’re in this van with six other people for hours and hours. It’s sort of this crazy thing and you can’t make it about you.”
Jacob said one of the best things about the trip was the chaos. With seven people constantly weighing in on day to day decisions, he learned to pull back when he needed to and just go with the flow.
“When you’re with a group like this, things are less predictable. You know, you give up a little self-determination, but there’s some excitement in it if you just let go and see what happens. I’ve never experienced anything like it since then.”
Chasing Surf and Tropical Rainforests
At the end of October, Jacob is taking off on his next adventure, to Panama and Costa Rica, where he plans on volunteering at a beach hostel on the Western Azuero Peninsula of Panama. This time he’ll be traveling solo.
“There’s a certain freedom in road-tripping alone,” he said. “You get to make decisions on the spur of the moment. You can kind of be like ‘I’m gonna go left in this fork in the trail because that’s what I feel like” and you don’t have to ask anybody.”
After Panama, Jacob plans on making his way up to the tropical rainforests in the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica, one of the world’s most biodiverse regions. Just 35 miles long and 20 miles wide, the peninsula contains 13 major ecosystems and accounts for 2.5 percent of earth’s biodiversity.